When you’re traveling overseas for a longer period of time, it can get tricky to communicate unless you have a working phone. You may want to get in touch with friends living in a foreign country or to let your hotel know that your bus is running late. But using your phone from home can lead to expensive roaming bills from your home provider. Even if you have an international plan, you’re likely paying a lot for it.
And if you rely on WiFi on your iPhone or iPod on airplane mode, you’re tethered to wherever you can find a free connection, which may be difficult to find. So the next logical solution is to use an unlocked cell phone and purchase a local SIM card.
The benefits of having a local SIM card:
- You can call hostels, hotels and tour companies to book or confirm your booking or to make changes.
- You can avoid booking fees by calling directly.
- You can easier meet up with friends when traveling. It gets complicated to arrange a meeting time, or tell them you’ll be late, without cell reception or WiFi.
- Your friends and family back home also have a number to call you on via Skype or another app.
First, you’ll need an unlocked cell phone.
An unlocked phone is one that is not tied to a phone company’s plan and can be used with any SIM that is installed. You can purchase one online before you leave through a website like Amazon, get your current phone unlocked, or you can wait until you arrive at your destination. In countries like Thailand and other places throughout Asia, you can purchase unlocked cell phones for very cheap at local markets, including basic phones and smartphones.
Then you’ll need a local SIM card.
You can pick one up when you arrive at the airport, in convenience stores and in malls. From there, you can purchase the amount of credit you need for the length of your trip. Once you’re done, you can toss the SIM card and get another when you arrive somewhere else.
My Experience with Phones and SIM Cards Abroad:
On my first day in Sydney, I went to the Optus store to find my “unlocked” phone wouldn’t work, but I easily found a cheap replacement Nokia for free. I never purchased a full plan, but rather topped up with $20 credits every month, which rarely ran out before time was up. I was even able to call my family in the US without using too much credit.
In Thailand, I purchased a simple dual band phone with a charger, a SIM card and 100 baht credit for the equivalent of less than $25 USD in a small store in Pai. This allowed me to call hotels to make bookings, to arrange a pickup to my volunteer stay and to call my friend whose wedding I was attending in Koh Samui.
I can also recommend getting a cheap SIM card in the UK and Europe, but the phone may set you back more than in other countries, depending on the brand. Carphone Warehouse sells unlocked phones for £1 and you can choose from providers like Vodafone or Virgin Mobile.
Traveling Without a Phone
There are many times I wished I’d brought an unlocked phone with me on a trip or purchased a local SIM card for a short jaunt, but especially on a trip to Germany. I met up with a friend to stay at her house, but had only sent her a Facebook message. When I didn’t immediately see her, I started to worry, especially as I didn’t have a way to contact her. I eventually found her, but could have saved myself some stress if I’d had a local cell phone plus SIM card.
Hi there, I was in Malmo, Sweden last year for two and half weeks and the first thing I did was purchase a $50 sim card at the mall. It was harder to get my phone unlocked!! $50 was the perfect amount, although I could purchase more if I wanted. I went on FB and posted pics every night, texted my friends when meeting for dinners, talked to my sister several times back in the states, researched places we were going, etc., The nice part as well, you never had to worry about extra charges because you’ve already paid the monies up front. It is well worth it if you like to stay connected! The only thing I would recommend is bringing a little pouch or envelope to put your home sim card in – they are tiny and I found myself paranoid and constantly checking to make sure I didn’t lose it.
I bought a universal sim card from Telestial before I left for my last trip. I’ve done it overseas before, but personally it’s something that I hate dealing with when I get there….so I put it off for days and days if possible! The one I got was comparable in price to the ones I’ve bought in Europe, but I was able to keep the same phone number the whole time, which my family back in the US loved.
Tannaz Mir says
I was wondering where can I buy this universal SIM Card? Do I still need to unlock my iphone? Also can I use it all over Europe?
Thank you so much!
Great post! SIM cards are a must for me simply for the data use, as free Wifi isn’t always available. It allows me to text message my friends and family back home via Google Voice. It was surreal being able to text my mom from my grandfather’s small village in the middle of Ukraine.
Obtaining a SIM card in Brazil was kind of challenging, but thankfully, I had a friend that spoke Portuguese. And cherishka, I agree — Germany is a different ball of wax because you have to “register” the card with a local address.
Anna @ The Blonde Banana says
I purchased local SIM cards when traveling in Morocco and Denmark. Both times I was able to install them in my “unlocked” Verizon phone (I just called Verizon to unlock the phone). One tip I’d suggest is making sure you have a paper clip with you to pop out the existing SIM card! In Morocco, they had these at the phone stores but in Denmark they did not so I had to wait until I got back to my hotel and use an earring. My sister who lives between 2 countries simply keeps one in her backpack so when she lands she can switch cards.
Taylor Jackson says
Hi Anna! I am so glad to see your comment. I have been trying to look into buying an unlocked cell phone and then a local sim card in Morocco but just have not been able to determine whether or not this would work out (I’m not so great with technology). So an unlocked us phone should work with a local sim in Morocco?
I’ll be in the States in July and I’m planning on getting a SIM card there. I think I can unlock my iphone online, but the idea of buying a cheap phone there is in intriguing.
Thanks for this article.
Hi Rebekah! I’m currently traveling in the States. At the airport in Sydney, I was able to pick up a US SIM card (http://www.simcorner.com/50-usa-prepaid-sim-card.html). If you can unlock your iPhone, I highly recommend getting your SIM before you go because I hear it can be a bit of a stress getting one when you arrive.
Thank you, Brooke for that link and your advice. I’ll definitely grab that sim when I’m at Sydney airport. Have a fabulous time!
Luckily for me, where I live (Singapore) all cellphones are unlocked and you can easily go to one of the many stores to pick up a 2nd cellphone. A couple of years ago I headed to the US for a 5-6 week trip and before going I got myself a US sim card that had a data option as well as a 2nd phone. Why a 2nd phone you might ask, well I’ll have roaming for my home cellphone and need to be contactable on it, I didn’t want to incur any expensive data charges so that’s where the US sim card come into play – it works out to be way more affordable and it was easier for my US friends to contact me on the US number so that they didn’t incur any costly expenses either.
Since then, I’ve also used a prepaid SIM card in Hong Kong and South Korea. I love being able to access data while overseas for a fraction of cost and not having to rely on free wifi which may not be readily available.
Alex B says
Has anybody had any experiences with buying local SIM cards in Central America? Specifically Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua. I’m having a lot more trouble finding info on SIM cards in these countries… specifically Guatemala. Some of the international SIM cards for multiple countries doesn’t even list Guatemala as a country that they can be used in!
Tannaz Mir says
Hello, Im backpacking Europe for a month so I was wondering what is the best plan for me?
For europe, I recommend either three (UK based, offers a varieties of countries included in the package, so dependong on where you go…)
french provider free is also not bad, for 2 euros per month you get internet and texts/calls, for 20 euro/month you get a lot of other countried also included in their 35 pass…so you can use the same sim card for several countries.
and there is also german ortel, their cross plan covers all of the eu (internet and calls) for 20 euro/month
all of the above cover more than one country. bit they have to be ordered online which can be a problem, so maybe more for longer stays abroad
I am travelling to Bali soon. Trying to figure out if it will be better to get a sim for my gerizon phone or buy a phone there & put sim card in it. I have a lot of contacts & notes & apps on my phone. Would like to ba able to use them & not lose them.
As long as your phone is unlocked then I would recommend just getting a SIM card. You can book one online at http://www.simjek.com/ and just collect it at the Bali International Airport